Humanity Undenied

On April 13, 2000, I was convicted of capital murder.  Despite endless pleas of innocence, fallacious testimony of witnesses, and a substantial amount of physical evidence supporting my acquittal, a body of jury members determined that my humanity was beyond repair and sentenced me to death.  Hours later, I walked onto Death Row, a fragment of the aspiring young son that my mother raised.  I prayed that every door that clanged shut behind me was a pinch that would rouse me from the ghastly nightmare.  I was numb, and with the best part of me eroded, there really wasn’t anything left to be executed. I was deemed worthless and unfit, forfeited to venomous IV drips and decades of incessant mental anguish. That man’s life expired the day the world gave up on me.

Since then, I have ascended beyond the threshold of Death Row twice.  Once in 2010 for a court session where I was treated like a leper by citizens who held me at the leashed end of their opinions, and again today, December 16, 2016, when I was scheduled to see a dermatologist for possible acne.

The sting of ostracism was immediate as myself and two other Death Row inmates were escorted to an area in the prison known as ‘Receiving’.  Officers from different units shuffled to and fro, as though we were unnoticeable.  Some sported faint smiles, while their eyes held glints of familiarity. Their seniority was somewhat validated by their capacity to fraternize with Central Prison’s most notorious. Corralled in a holding cell that reeked of stale urine, we were put on display through dense Plexiglas like weapons grade cargo on a showroom floor.  Inmates from various statewide facilities scrutinized us, as though our red jumpsuits uncovered some penal myth.  A few nodded nervously, ceding to a hierarchy of status, while others held stares of sympathy.  I wanted to say, “Don’t feel sorry for me. We’re having our first ever talent show on Death Row today and a pizza party, later, to celebrate our accomplishments. With drama class, chess club, and journalism, we are changing the narrative,” but I didn’t.  Instead, I sat there, guarded, while their gazes pricked holes in my dignity.

Soon, a jangled sound filled the air announcing the arrival of chains and shackles. Our waists were girdled in iron, while a steel box and padlock outfitted our wrists.  After the other two Death Row inmates departed, I felt sullen and degraded. My eagerness to see the world waned in the confined loneliness. Finally, I was retrieved and ushered to a vehicle while my escorts discussed travel details. In proximity, I was no more than toxic merchandise to be handled with care, but once secured, they paid little attention to me.  Artillery joined our convoy as guns were collected at the gates.  My despair deepened as I realized their potential should I become overwhelmed by the desire for liberation.

As the big gates folded outward and we departed, I checked for vantage points.  I hoped to disconnect from the unsettling notion that these men were an incident away from destroying me.  They seated me behind the driver, which proved to be a visual hindrance, but then, the strangest thing grabbed my attention – a traffic light. It was suspended high above the earth like some sustainable relic from a past millennium, its illuminated orbs unbiased in providing safety for travelers.  With the advancement in everything else electronic, I imagined that even traffic lights had gotten smarter.  The familiar sight comforted me.

I also noticed the assortment of parked cars stacked like dominoes in their lots, and other things, like the brittle grass, and withered leaves.  It put me in a place of wonderment that made fretting over small displeasures seem trivial.  The vast blue sky vaguely resembled the same outside my cell’s window. Patches of trees along the highway took me back to when I was a kid taking refuge in the woods, where I would scale the colossal monuments with as much vigor as my inquisition could muster.  Seeing these everyday sights through the window, the feeling of confinement gradually dissolved, and I decided that any point from which to view life’s splendor would be fortunate.  I sat back to enjoy 18 years of societal evolution unfold.

The first person of whom I took careful notice was a pedestrian woman of Asian descent. She was saddled in a trench coat and scarf, while the silky strands of her hair danced in the morning breeze.  The young woman walked with a determined pace as the steps of her sneakers pounded to a drum of freedom in my head.  I guessed that she was an intelligent college student, who was running late for class.  Then, I thought how stereotypical I was being to think that all Asians were intelligent.  It could be that she hated school, and was on her way to work or anywhere.  I realized the pitfalls we create for ourselves, and others, when we judge people on sight alone. I quickly put my assessments in check, given the circumstances. People would be judging me soon enough, yet with the chains and shackles, it was unlikely that their opinions would waiver.

As the young woman faded from view, another pedestrian snagged my attention. He was a Caucasian male with cropped brown hair and an unsuspecting face. He wore baggie jeans and a hoodie, and walked leisurely as if having no particular destination. I was moved. How nice it must be to have the liberty to head nowhere.

Other daily norms stood out – a guy pumping gas into a brown Chevy, a caravan of drivers spilling through a fast food lane, and a gorgeous blond sitting at a bus stop reading a book. These simple acts of living filled me with inspiration and envy. As we passed shabby, destitute homes, I imagined the warmth and comfort of finding rest inside. I saw lakes and rivers with depths that held mysteries. I observed drivers along the freeway who kept pace with our detail – some I admired for their boldness to steal glances, others I despised for their obliviousness. There were roadway signs and billboards I read with the meticulousness of a good novel.  Some strip malls and hotel chains I saw were like oasis’s of renewed hope.  My head ping-ponged from side to side as I was engrossed from every perspective.

When our vehicle slowed and veered onto an adjoining roadway, I barely noticed. The sign read ‘Medical Facility’, which showed our arrival. Other transports from around the state departed, each with an inmate in back whose eyes held envy of freedom. There was an edginess that crept over me as I mentally prepared for the stigmatizing treatment to come. I made presumptions of a scripted encounter, where I would be objectified in a way that found many of the questions bouncing up off of the floor at me.  I remembered a guy on Death Row who once wrote about his experience with the outside hospital.  The focus of his composition was social ostracism. That message now resonated with me, strongly. He spoke of a particular moment when he felt eager to return to Death Row.  I dared to feel the same way.

I was peeled from my place of refuge by armed guards and escorted to an area marked ‘Outpatient’. There, an orderly awaited.  She was a petite woman with auburn hair and a tailored smile.  The orderly greeted us (or rather, the officers were greeted since she barely looked my way), then led us inside. Admittedly, there was a politeness and professionalism in her disregard for me that did not seem spiteful.  It was then that I realized that my lesson in being dehumanized had already taken effect.  As we moved about the corridors, watchful eyes landed on my crimson jumpsuit with cautiousness and curiosity.  I was overcome with shame.  The contemptuous stares and unsteady demeanors of others made me reject myself.  I wasn’t quite ready to go back to Death Row yet, but the idea seemed plausible.

We were shown to a waiting room and held up there for some time. The officers from Central Prison, along with those from other facilities, flung chatter over my head at one another, as though my cuffed hands prevented my grasp for understanding.  Eventually, their attention turned my way.  It began when the Sergeant who oversaw my transport detail asked, “So, when is Death Row going to perform another play?” Another officer asked, “What was the rehearsal process like?”  While another officer asked, “Did Death Row really host a Story Slam?”

I felt grateful to be in the position of being somewhat of a spokesperson.  I replied that our performance of the play, “12 Angry Men,” in front of guests from the Vera Institute for Justice, was a turning point, and that our Drama Club was excited about the potential projects to come. The rehearsal process was a grueling experience at times, but humbling in that it formed bonds among many Death Row inmates and staff. And the Story Slam was a competition in which Death Row writers performed short stories before guests and judges.

Afterwards, the questions from the officers poured in, while each response unraveled the fallacy of a woven stigma. Before long, we were engaged in stimulating conversation about life, politics, and other recent events.  The officers seemed genuinely interested in the many productive ways in which we were reshaping the Death Row image.  I recounted some of the other programs, such a Social Psychology, Houses of Healing, Speech / Debate, and Yoga.  They could hardly believe it.  I guess some of my own generalizations were beginning to unravel.  I still didn’t doubt their course of action should I have tried to escape, I just concluded that it likely wouldn’t be malicious.

A while later, a nurse came who seemed accustomed to working with inmates, even those from Death Row.  Her cordialness was refreshing, her eye contact, relaxing.  I almost forgot that I was an inmate or that she wasn’t in a prison.  Her interactions with me were not what I had expected.  I thought the distance she kept would be obvious, but it wasn’t.  I thought she would refer to me rather than speak with me, but she didn’t. There was a kindness and consideration about the nurse that was pleasant, it reminded me of a time I once knew.

The entire process took an hour or so, then, afterwards, we were back on the road to damnation. As I sat in the backseat on the drive back to prison, I bid goodbye to all of life’s liberties that I may never see again. I thought about all of the chaos in the world – the 49 civilians gunned down in a nightclub in Orlando, FL, for no other reason than their personal lifestyle, the nine church members in Charleston, SC, executed while attending service, for the capital offense of being black, the spectators bombed at the annual Boston Marathon, and the tiny bodies of innocent children that littered the hallways of Sandy Hook Elementary.

I thought about the heightened gang activity plaguing our urban communities and the politicians who pass laws that arm the mentally unstable. I thought of the victims of sexual violence and the random lives cut short by inebriated drivers. I wondered at the people who did not appreciate their liberties. Why, just being able to walk around, headed nowhere, was not enough to stay the hand of violence.  Just the other day, someone killed four people in my own hometown.  I wondered would their lives have been spared had the perpetrator known the trials and hardships of incarceration. How an inmate is devoid of all liberties, the decades of having lost friends to the cruelty of lethal concoctions, the segregation from a world that has moved on without you. And yet, you develop such a profound appreciation for all things that even trees and traffic lights can inspire.

Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity.  It’s where humanity is rediscovered and restored.  Death Row is where the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death.  We are all human beings, and as such we are genetically prone to make mistakes, but for many Death Row inmates we are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair, and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own, for we can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases, a second chance.  No matter what our personal or collective opinions are, no one will ever deserve to die.

© Chanton

A New Addition To The Library!

Travis Runnels, a man living on death row in Texas, recently sent me a copy of a book he authored, How To Survive In Prison.

I was hoping for the best when I opened it, but didn’t know what I would find.  I post Mr. Runnel’s work, but had never seen anything of this length from him.

Thank you, Travis, for coming through.  The book is a quick read, but packed full of practical information, and written with Travis’ no-nonsense, positive outlook.  Runnel’s writing is clear, easy to read and to the point.  He covers the things he can cover and also leaves the reader with pages of valuable resources and their contact information.  Everything from where to turn for penpals, to immigration resources.

I give Travis Runnels five stars for How To Survive In Prison.

“This book provides an inside view of what it is like to enter prison and survive. It guides you through the day to day activities, expectations and the mentality on how to survive. Travis shares from personal experience and provides insight into what prison life is really like.”

The Womb Of The Beast

After walking away from a decade in solitary, I did not feel rehabilitated.  I was and am frustrated at not really being able to understand the real damage done to my mind until I am released from prison all together.  Who can predict the type of person or monster these isolation units will re-birth back into society?  Is there a possibility that destructive behavior will be born out of being forced into an environment where an individual is purposely outcast, ‘misfitted’, and alienated through prolonged solitary confinement?

An elephant has one of the longest gestation periods, lasting twenty two months.  A woman’s pregnancy lasts about forty weeks.  The figurative gestation period of isolation units holding prisoners sometimes exceeds years, even decades.  If the cells in a prison are the belly of the beast, the isolation units are the womb.

When prisoners are left to languish within isolation cells for prolonged periods, those cells then become a place of development.  But nothing about this development period is constructive to the mind and spirit.  The environment is made of cold metal and concrete and filled with air that carries the sound of screams, fists pounding on doors, and unpredictable moments of dead silence.   There is little to no compassion or communication with the outside world, and the opening of the cell door acts as the umbilical cord the beast uses to maintain our life through food, mail and medications.

In the womb of a woman, a baby is surrounded by warmth and the nourishment of amniotic fluid.  Doctors can test the fluids to determine the baby’s health.  In the womb of the beast, there are no amniotic fluids, rather psychological pressure attacking those it holds within.  The pressure is a mix of horror, anger, wrath, loneliness, hate and sadness.  There is no way for doctors to test a prisoner’s well-being and monitor health.  So what happens upon rebirth?

Some prisoners may come out strong, others broken, but all affected.  Many will get lost in the psychological labyrinth and come out part human and part beast – psychopathic minotaurs.

Restrictive conditions within the ‘womb’, solitary, are radically different in harshness than in the ‘belly’, general population.  When exposed to the radical prison gestation conditions of the Womb of The Beast, prisoners are more prone to develop mental and personality disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Post Incarcerated Syndrome, Dependent Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, etc.  While suffering such mental and emotional traumas, these prisoners are more susceptible to staying in or joining gangs, or worse, becoming radicalized for religious or political causes.  All of which makes them more likely to commit more crimes upon release, even the extreme kinds.  But, this could be the goal of the Beast and its many minions (investors and employees).   If it doesn’t end, we will continue to see…

Illegitimate Trick Babies
Conceived from the blood of society’s lust,
Forcing thousands into an underworld
That never gave a fuck,
One way or another,
DNA make ups
Of crooked cops, prosecutors, and judges,
Who wear the masks of equality
Knowing damn well
They never loved us!

It’s Toxic Wombs Constructed
Of barbed-wire labyrinths of unforeseen change,
Too many years developing
Within the womb of a fiend,
Drowning us in the fathoms of tattoo tears
While constantly stabbing our souls
With infected syringes of loss and pain,
Depriving the many caterpillars
Held within its concrete cocoons,
Slowly killing the moths
Before they can reach
The lights of truth!

While Never Preparing
It’s offspring to breath
The polluted air of society:
“The Deceit of nature!”
Designed to systematically scrape you,
Of all your humanity
Sanity
And class,
While it proudly welcomes you:
“Com’on man!”
Before it’s billy-clubbed hands
Smack numbers on your ass,
Push you back inside
For the labor process
To start all over again.
WITHIN THE WOMB OF THE BEAST!

As you can gather at this point, I am not an educated person, nor a certified psychologist or behavioral scientist, but my experiences and my descriptions are truthful and authentic.  My experience being exposed to solitary units for prolonged periods has afforded me valuable perspective.  We need to continuously move toward abolishing the use of solitary confinement in all U.S. prisons.

While in general population, people often look at me strange when they realize I’m one of the guys who has spent ten or more years in solitary.  Many have asked me, “Did you lose your mind while you were in there, bruh?”

I always reply, “Hell, nah.  I’m too strong to go out like that!”

But the reality of it is, that I do not know how damaged I really am, because I suffer underneath my soldier’s mask of strength and fortitude and sometimes whisper to myself in the mirror, “They got me fucked up…”

‘But, who isn’t messed up in some type of way?’ my thoughts try to rationalize with my deepest internal cries.

I am haunted by a statement made by Friedrich Nietzche in “Beyond Good and Evil” (1986):

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

‘Damn!’

Leon Benson #995256
PCF
4490 W. Reformatory Road
Pendleton, IN 46064
(Due to mailroom restrictions, any communication with Leon Benson is required to be written or typed on notebook lined paper.  Unfortunately, he cannot receive printed correspondence.)

www.freeleonbenson.org

Don’t Cry For Me

She sits weeping in the front pew wearing a pretty dress.
The ivory casket conceals what remains.
Don’t cry for me, Mama, you did your best.
In the eyes of the gathering is a terrible truth.
The ivory casket conceals what remains.
I am the good that I have done, and the bad.
In the eyes of the gathering is a terrible truth.
Joyous hymns ward off the minions awaiting my soul.
I am the good that I have done, and the bad.
What’s next for a guy like me?
Joyous hymns ward off the minions awaiting my soul.
Tear drops descended for a fallen son.
What’s next for a guy like me?
A long black chariot and a caravan of mourners.
Tear drops descended for a fallen son.
Six feet is plenty deep to bury my regrets.
A long black chariot and a caravan of mourners.
Words spat from Scripture can be swift and deceiving.
Six feet is plenty deep to bury my regrets.
I was meant to be so much more.
Words spat from Scripture can be swift and deceiving.
The portal opens and I am summoned forth.
I was meant to be so much more.
Farewell to all who knew me.
The portal opens and I am summoned forth.
She sits weeping in the front pew wearing a pretty dress.
Farewell to all who knew me.
Don’t cry for me, Mama, you did your best.

© Chanton

Joy Ride

My favorite childhood memory was of our first family trip.  We went to an amusement park in Virginia, King’s Dominion.  I can still remember when my older brother, Ray, first told me, “We’re going to King’s Dominion tomorrow.” I was eleven years old with no idea what King’s Dominion was and too afraid to ask Ray stupid questions.  He was fourteen years old and easily annoyed.  Besides, Ray seemed excited enough for us both.  I simply emulated his enthusiasm and listened to his descriptions of the park for the rest of that day.

By the next morning I had revisited the idea of the wonderland a hundred times.  Would there be a mighty King in regal garments with a jewel encrusted sword and a crown of gold?  Was there a magnificent castle with a moat, drawbridge, and subjects who paid the King’s toll to have fun? Were there dragons, guards, and clashes of steel?  I was psyched about going to King’s Dominion.

We were up before dawn getting prepped.  I chose my favorite pair of jam shorts, which I’d already worn earlier that week, a blue tank top, and my only pair of name brand sneakers, gray suede Adidas. Ray wore jam shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of blue and white Nikes. His style was always fresh.  My mom fixed meals and got my sister, Sophia, ready.  At four years old, she seemed more irked for being awakened so early than stoked about the trip. To cheer her up, I promised her an amusement park ride together.

Shortly after that, Reotis arrived.  He and my mom were dating. Reotis was tall, dark, and liked to wear shades.  He was always in good spirits, accompanying every other word with a smile.  We liked Reotis a lot for being active in our lives. He talked with Ray and I about school, gave us money for arcade games, and took us all out for fast food.  On that day, he had promised to take us to King’s Dominion.  We all gathered our things, loaded up the car, and headed out.  I situated myself next to the backseat window to gaze through the glass.  I was a dreamer, and the world beyond our town’s limits had always piqued my imagination.  Within minutes we’d put the hazardous potholes of the E. B. Jordan housing projects behind us, and were cruising down the smooth, endless blacktop of highway 301.

The adventure began for me right away. I was transfixed on everything outside my window – rural homes, rivers and ponds, pastures with grazing cows. The simplest things fascinated me. There were radio towers that spanned the heavens, eighteen-wheelers that devoured our tiny car in their shadows, and roadways interwoven like knitted linen. The world outside our town of Wilson, NC, was everything I had imagined.

The mood inside the car was made livelier with the sweet sounds of Whitney Houston, “Oh, I wanna dance with somebody!”  It was my mom’s favorite cassette.  Ray and I played a game in which some of life’s luxuries were as easily obtainable as being the first to point and proclaim, “That’s my car!” or “That’s my house!”  After a while, I grew bored with the scenes outside my window and dozed off.  It wasn’t long before Ray shook me awake. “Git up!” he shouted, punctuating the command with a jab to the shoulder.  “We’re here!”  I sprang to life, anxious for my first peek.

There was a giant Ferris wheel that could be seen above the tree line, with its bucket seats dipping down below, along with steel tracks and the guardrail of a roller coaster ride.  I bounced from window to window as I took in the spectacle of King’s Dominion.  It was a timeless moment without breath or sound. The stillness lasted momentarily, then uproar.

Mom reiterated her list of do’s and don’t’s.  Reotis weaved through traffic to make the exit ramp.  Sophia pointed this way and that, while Ray verbally committed to every ride he saw.  I was enchanted by the sights alone – bright lights, colorful balloons, water rides, and candy.  I noticed that there weren’t any castles or dragons, but the disappointment lessened with each scream that came from within. Before entering the park, we ate cold cuts and drank canned sodas from a cooler stored in the trunk. Then, we made our way to the ticket booth, paid the fare, and were admitted.

We took a brief tour of King’s Dominion to get familiar with the premises, then enjoyed an hour or so of family time. Booth games. Arcades.  The carousel.  Reotis bought us sun visors, except Ray, who chose a purple sailor’s hat.  We were so happy just being together.  It was the first time I’d felt like one of the normal families I’d seen advertised in movies and on cereal boxes.  For one day I wasn’t poor, uneducated, and destined for failure by the dysfunctional circumstances of my environment.  We weren’t restricted to having black fun while everyone else had white fun.  It was the one time I can remember when the world was perfect, and racial strife was a thing that existed galaxies away. The only universe that mattered was King’s Dominion.

After a while Ray was ready to head out on his own.  His adventurous side had been quelled long enough, and it was roller coaster time.  The only stipulation was that he had to take me along and keep me safe.  Ray wasn’t thrilled about that, but I was.  I liked being Ray’s responsibility.  He and I spent the day screaming, laughing, and clutching each other as monstrous roller coasters whisked us through their courses.  It felt wonderful to lean on my brother when I was scared.

Ray and I later rejoined the rest of the family.  The sun was setting, and patrons were winding down from the day’s activities. It was time for us to leave.  Reotis snapped photos to capture the moment.

Soon, we were back on the road driving away from that magical Mecca of fun toward a more arid reality.  A reality where sugar water with cereal bespoke the absence of money for milk.  A reality that would discover Reotis with a wife and family, and fading from our lives.  Where, in just a few short years, Ray would become hooked on drugs.  The consequent neglect would cause me to harbor anger and resentment for my vulnerability and to turn to negative influences, trying to fill a void.  A reality where my brother and sister would grow estranged as adults for a theft three decades past.  One where I would battle tumultuous inner demons while serving more than half of my life in a cage.  That was what we were driving back to – the only reality for people like us. Yet, for one day, King’s Dominion allowed us to shrug off our fates, cast aside our burdens, and live in a moment of blissfulness that even reality could not disturb.

© Chanton

Mongo

The following story is completely true. The names haven’t been changed, because in this day of fake news and alternative facts, there are no longer any innocent…

I’ve been incarcerated for 8847 days. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of things that I’ve thought stood out in my journey. This is just one of them.

During my travels, I once did time on the French Robertson unit in Abilene, Texas—a large maximum security unit. At the time of my stay there, it was a very dangerous place for inmates and correctional officers alike.

It was 1995, and I had been there less than a year. I knew absolutely no one. I weighed 160 pounds, dripping wet. I was 34 years old, and I realized that I was probably going to have to fight to stay alive.

Now, I am not a fighter. I know a bunch of dirty tricks, which my dad taught me when I was young in order to avoid getting my butt kicked or picked on by bullies. I am also well versed in the art of psychological warfare.

When I arrived at the unit, I was shown my living quarters and left to my own devices. My cellmate, an older convict by the name of Ranger, looked at me and told me bluntly, “You’re going to have to catch a square.”

I asked him what that meant, and he told me that I would have to fight someone in order to gain respect so others wouldn’t bother me. I looked out into the dayroom, and in one area near the TV, I saw a mountain, sitting, watching the television.

I figured that, if I was going to die, it might as well be “instantaneous”, so I went down the stairs into the dayroom, and I tapped the giant on the shoulder. He turned and rose. Soon, I was looking level at his shirt pocket. I couldn’t see around him, because he blocked the light.

He looked down and in a voice that would do any baritone monster proud, said, “What do you want, little man?”

I quickly pulled a notepad and pencil out of my back pocket and asked him, “Can I have your name, Sir?”

“My name is Mongo. Why you want to know Mongo’s name?”

I explained to him that I was writing down all the names of the people whose asses I could kick. He looked at me for about three seconds, blank stare, furrowed brow. Then he started laughing so hard I thought I saw a tear come to his eye.

He patted me on the back and said, “You can’t kick Mongo’s ass, little man!”

I turned my pencil around and erased his name and said, “Well, let me take your name off the list then.” This made him laugh even harder. (I think he might have peed a little bit, but I didn’t point this out to him.)

Mongo said, “Little man, you the first to make Mongo laugh in fourteen years. I like you. You Mongo’s friend.”

Like my dad told me, the only way to eliminate your enemies is to make them your friends.

Mongo motioned for me to sit on the bench next to him. Because of his size, it was his television. He was watching cartoons. I imagined if he was home, he would have a large bowl of cereal and orange juice nearby—still in his pajamas (if they made pj’s that size).

There was a commercial break, and he asked if I wanted a Coke. We were having such a good time, I decided that to decline such an offer might result in hurt feelings, so I said, “All right.”

His cell (emphasis on the word HIS) was on the first floor. He had no cellie. (I’m hoping that was because there wasn’t any room and not because he had eaten the last one!)  The cell was full of stuff. It looked like a Dollar Store. There were cases of soda, chips, soups, candy, radios, fans, hot pots—you name it. I asked him, “Mongo, where did you get all this stuff?” He replied, “People bring me stuff.” Simply put.

Mongo was at least 6’5” tall and easily weighed over 300 lbs—not an ounce of fat. His hands were big enough to palm a basketball like it was a ping pong ball. His head would do a Brahma bull proud.

I later learned that Mongo was the product of a Samoan father and a Spanish mother. I also learned his real name, Davidson Alexander Munoz, born 10/16/63.

He had been incarcerated at age 18 and had been locked away for fourteen years — that meant he was 32 years old. He had done most of his sentence on the Coffield Unit in East Texas. His E.A. (Education Assessment) score was 3.1.  However, his I.Q. was measured at 85. Mongo wasn’t stupid, he was ignorant.  He couldn’t read or write, his language skills were Cro-Magnon — his social skills were, “Mongo want that.”  And what Mongo wants, Mongo gets…

Over the next two weeks, we became friends. I learned about his childhood in American Samoa and his move to the U.S. to live with his aunt in Southern California. However, Mongo became a victim of the “law of parties.” He was with several of his “friends” when they went on a road trip to Texas, and they held up a convenience store where one of the “friends” shot and killed the clerk. Mongo was in the car.

They gave him fifteen years for being there. I doubt, to this day, he ever knew what he was doing there, in prison, or why. Taking up space—a lot of space.

I also learned that he hadn’t heard from or written to his family in ten years. I asked him why. “Mongo doesn’t know how to write. No one help Mongo.”

So, I told him to find the address, and I’d help him. “Address on left bicep.” Sure enough, there was an address tattooed on his left arm, hidden well between the tribal art. It had been there a while. I guess it was the family’s way of saying, “If found, return to this address.” I know a milk carton wouldn’t have been big enough. Heck, a bumper sticker wouldn’t have been big enough.

So I went up to my cell and brought a couple of sheets of paper, a blank envelope, and a pen. The letter, in itself, was an example of innocence and need. Short on details, short in length, long in hope.

We finished the letter in less than 20 minutes. I folded it carefully and placed it in the envelope and addressed it. Mongo pulled a wad of stamps from his ID holder and placed five in the corner.  “It’s a long way home.” I totally agreed.

So, now I knew almost everything about my new friend. I asked him one day if he needed anything done. He said, “Feet hurt. Need boots.” I looked at his feet (they looked like yards). His boots were too small. I asked him if he had any money in his account. “Mongo have money.” Well, why don’t we blue slip you a pair of boots. So I filled out a blue slip for him and asked him what size. “Don’t know.” I had him pull off his right boot. It was a size 18 ½, and it was too small. So I put 19 on the slip, and we mailed it to the commissary.

When it didn’t come back, I went with him to the store, and we bought a pair of size 19 Rhinos. It had to have taken a whole cow to make the things.

A week later, Mongo received a letter. It was from his mama. He asked me to read it for him. I read the letter, minus the scolding his mama gave him for not writing, saying that they were worried sick about him — fearing the worst had happened to their “baby” boy.

Mongo was the youngest of three sisters and four brothers. As I read the letter, Mongo was transfixed. He was silent. I told him he had a very nice family, and he needed to get out and go home. He nodded.

In the time I spent there, I taught Mongo how to read. It only took about 3 months. I doubt he would ever finish “War and Peace” in his lifetime, but he could write his own letters.

I left Mongo as I found him, sitting in the dayroom, watching cartoons. They (the Sheriff’s Department) had picked me up on a bench warrant, back to the county of my arrest.

I told Mongo I was going on a trip, and that I hoped he would be all right. He asked me if I would be back. I told him that it was up to the system, but I had his TDCJ#, and I would check on him when I got to where I was going. I received one letter from him. I kept that letter for almost twenty years—it was thrown away in a shakedown.

When I was leaving, Mongo grabbed me and gave me a hug (one that I still feel to this day, because I think he dislocated something!). But, it is his friendship I miss the most.

My dad told me, “Never judge a book by its cover.” He would have liked Mongo. That’s good enough for me. My dad also said, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.”

I think he knew I would meet the gentle giant…

John Green #671771
C.T. Terrell Unit A346
1300 FM655
Rosharon, TX 77583

 

 

Things I Carry

Burden is a thing I carry as a consequence of donning the fabric of hardship red each day.  Oh, yes, hardship red is a color. It falls somewhere between credit department red and eternal brimstone red. Hardship red is the mark of cruelty and justifiable death. Its burden is the stigma that comes with those who are systemically unaware that my character is not defined by my circumstances.

Another thing that I carry is loyalty. I carry it to a fault.  I believe that power is vulnerability, and that even the mightiest of men have an Achilles heel.  Mine is the naiveté that everyone views loyalty the same as I.

There is a King James Version Bible that I carry, one given to me by the mother of a friend of mine in 1999. That Bible is my oldest possession and the thing I cherish most. It has been a chariot of hope and comfort throughout a taxing ordeal that can be spiritually depleting.

I carry an appreciation for social proximity and the opportunity to inspire. Evolution is not growth in isolation. Evolution is the necessity to impact one another constructively, as we are all vital building blocks to the future. It’s my fondness for proximity to others that has me strive for social compatibility. I like to think that I make friends easily, but the truth is, I’m not very good at it. The flaw is my hardened demeanor, with shoulders that are tense and eyes that are instinctively suspicious due to the hardship of another color. Proximity to others keeps me aware of my truths. It reminds me of our humanitarian duty to each other to accept people as they are. I’m reminded that it’s our very flaws which give us the strength of individuality and uniqueness.

I carry a liking for fantasy books and soap operas as a means to lose myself. Many would say that those pastimes are lame for a forty-four year old black man to enjoy, but what better alternative is there than fantasizing when my reality is so unkind.

I carry a passion for reggae music and its essentialness to the music genre. Music is a platform of global influences, and it’s the wisdom of roots and culture reggae that is the blue print for unity and world peace.

I carry the ashes of regret for the many bridges I’ve burned. My life today is a looking glass of my present self viewing my past. Maturity is about accountability and correction, yet, when the opportunity for correction is unavailable it can cause daily emotional strain.

But the thing I carry most is my undying devotion to family. I believe that blood ties alone should warrant trust and security. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “A man who has not found something worth dying for is not fit to live.” I stand here today, on North Carolina’s death row, willing to die for family. And though the sentiment is not always mutual, still, it’s something that I will never regret.

© Chanton

The Things They Teach Me

We learn from our mistakes, they say.

What of the mistakes of others?  My friends that live behind bars teach me every day.  They teach me about regret, and strength, and love.  They teach me about redemption, and forgiveness, and compassion.  They teach me that we all deserve a chance, people can change, and common decency can be lost in some places.

They teach me that after twenty years in a cell – you are no longer the person you once were.  Guilty or innocent or harshly punished – the people I know are no longer the people they were when they were incarcerated.

A few have taught me to toughen up.  A few have taught me not to be naïve.  A few have disappointed me.  But, most have taught me about what it means to be human.  Most have made me look at myself and what is important in life.  Most have made my life fuller through their friendship.

Some are innocent, some are guilty, some were punished far beyond reason.   But – they are all just as human as me.   Those that treat them less than human, are sacrificing their own humanity.

Full Circle

I caged a bird once when I was a kid.  I used a small box to build a makeshift trap equipped with string, a branch, and bread crumbs for bait. Then I crouched down in my shadowy perch and counted off the seconds as I lay in wait, imagining the thrill of victory. Before long a small bird soared into view, landed near the hidden dungeon, and ventured inside. Unable to contain my excitement and anticipation, I yanked the string, and the box slammed shut.

I was so elated to see that the trap had actually worked. I sprang towards the prize with little consideration for anything but my own sense of accomplishment. I had outsmarted the opposition and conquered it. I had won.

Initially, the commotion from within the box confirmed that the prey was inside, but then everything went silent. I contemplated my next move. Where to keep the bird? What to feed it? It struck me that, more importantly, the bird needed air. So while firmly holding the box with both hands, I lifted it just slightly enough for a crack of sunlight and air to creep through. Nothing happened. I started to doubt if I’d even captured the formidable adversary or if its innate elusiveness had something to do with magic. The curiosity was killing me. I had to know.

I eased the box higher, just enough to peep inside. That’s when the bird saw its chance and made a break for it. It shimmied out the slit, hopped several times building momentum, then took flight. I stood there motionless, disappointed, as I watched my victim escape. I felt duped and deprived, as though the bird was at fault for defying me and not conforming to an outcome that I had set. It had stolen that feeling of invincibility from me and it just didn’t seem fair. I was the greater force at work. My happiness was the only thing relevant.

Today, I was caged by a bird. It sat perched atop the windowsill outside my cell here on death row. At first, I tried paying it no mind, but its looming presence was impossible to ignore. Then I tried shooing it away. Unfazed by my frivolous antics, it refused to budge, instead peering at me here in the box with seemingly no consideration or regard for the victim trapped within. Its eye stoic, holding no empathy or remorse for the horrible conditions I suffered. I suddenly remembered a time when the roles were reversed.

The day I watched that bird escape and fly away, not once did I consider what an ordeal it must’ve been like for it. How afraid it must’ve been, being swallowed up in the darkness. The loneliness it must’ve felt. Confusion. The hurt and anger of being violated and victimized. And what of the consequences had it never returned to the nest. Would its family miss it? Would there be songs to mourn its absence? Were there young that depended on its safe return for survival?

I have known what it’s like to be the bird outside my window but not the one that I trapped in the box, until now. Today I am that bird, trapped beyond the cruel dark thresholds of North Carolina’s death row. Except here there are no cracks to breath, no slits from which to escape, and the only air to breath holds the aroma of death.

Sometimes I think it’s karma. The encounter with the bird was certainly not the only stain on my moral canvas. I would go on to do many things I regret. Other times I think maybe it was a test. That the bird was sent to metaphorically provide an escape from a gateway of terrible decisions and a path from which there was no return. Maybe the bird was never really trapped at all. Maybe it was me all along. If so, then here I wait – afraid, lonely, and confused, feeling violated and victimized, and desperately hoping for the day when a crack of sunlight will come creeping through.

© Chanton

Beaten To Death By Deputies While Jailed For Drinking

Larry Trent was 54 years old when he was arrested on July 5th of 2013.  He lived in Kentucky.  The citation from the day of his arrest reported that Trent claimed to have had about four beers and some mouthwash.

So it was that Larry found himself in jail for operating a vehicle under the influence.  The story should end there, with whatever reasonable punishment Kentucky feels is suitable if guilt is established.  It doesn’t though.  His story isn’t big news, but it should be.  It is one more story that has become part of the fabric of a justice system that is in a shambles.

There is poor justice, and there is wealthy justice.  Those are two different things.  The system is set up that way.  Larry Trent did not have the funds to post bond, so he stayed in jail.  If Larry Trent were wealthy, he would not have remained behind bars.  Larry received the poor man’s justice.

Four days after his arrest, Larry was murdered by two deputies.   One of the deputies is reported as standing 6’6” tall and weighing over 400 pounds.  The indictment stated that Larry was killed by the deputies striking, kicking and restraining him while he was at the Kentucky River Regional Jail.  According to Ken Howlett, News Director at K105, Larry wasn’t only beaten down to the floor, one of his attackers stepped back into his cell to kick him in the head after he was left on the floor.  Medical attention wasn’t called in for about four hours, only after another employee discovered the body.

As reported in the articles below, the deputies responsible for Larry’s death were actually staff trainers.  These men coached other employees on how to behave at the jail.  After Trent’s death, the jail did not make note of any training failures or a need to reevaluate existing training.

A lack of accountability, the practice of turning a blind eye, and – as one corrections employee termed it to me – the good ole’ boys’ club are all a part of our corrections system.  Those are the things that led to a man who was too poor to post bond being beaten to death by jail staff.   It has happened before, and it will happen again.

We aren’t the first society to find a way to accommodate a population that encourages survival of the fittest, most talented, most graceful.   But – let’s call it what it is.  Acknowledge it.  It isn’t going to change unless people are aware of it.

It’s an election week.  I have seen commercials with politicians spouting how they will be ‘tough on crime’.  I had one actually knock on my door as he canvassed the neighborhood looking for votes.  It’s time they quit standing on a statement they think works – ‘tough on crime’ – and got their heads out of the sand.  A 54 year old man was murdered by deputies that were staff trainers while in jail on drunk driving charges.   It’s time to be ‘smart’ on crime.

REFERENCES

Downs, Ray. “Kentucky Jail Guard Sentenced to 10 Years for Beating Inmate to Death.”UPI, UPI, 1 Nov. 2017, www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2017/11/01/Kentucky-jail-guard-sentenced-to-10-years-for-beating-inmate-to-death/1941509584733/.

Dunlop, R.G. “Trouble Behind Bars: When Jail Deaths Go Unnoticed.” Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, 22 Nov. 2016, kycir.org/2015/10/05/trouble-behind-bars-when-jail-deaths-go-unnoticed/.Howlett, Ken. “Former Deputy Jailer Sentenced to over 10 Years in

Howlett, Ken. “Former Deputy Jailer Sentenced to over 10 Years in Prison for Beating Inmate to Death.” K105, www.k105.com/2017/11/03/former-deputy-jailer-sentenced-to-over-10-years-in-prison-for-beating-inmate-to-death/.